Monday, October 25, 2010

Use a Vignette to Focus Attention on Your Subject


You may have noticed that I make it a regular practice to apply a vignette to my photography.  In fact, nearly every photograph receives some level of vignette in post processing.  My reason for doing this is simple; a vignette is another tool to help draw the viewers eye to the subject of the photograph.

The idea is simple; the eye is naturally drawn to light.  After exploring the light, bright, and more prominent aspects of a photograph, the eye will then travel to explore the details in the darker areas, on the margins, and in the shadows. So when we apply a vignette in post processing, even a subtle one, you can think of it as a funnel directing or nudging the eye to the middle of the composition.

In addition to the traffic control role played by a vignette, I like the look.  Like many things in photography, there is a broad field of opinion and vocally opinionated people who love to debate the use of vignettes and other techniques.  Personally, I don’t really care…I like it, and little else matters.

Lets just assume you are onboard with the idea of a vignette.  The next questions might logically include:

  1. How do I apply a vignette?
  2. Are there different types of vignettes?
  3. How do I know I applied the “right” amount.

In explanation, I will walk you through my workflow for applying a vignette.  The vignette is generally the last thing I do in the post processing workflow which coincidentally is one of the last controls in the “Develop”  module of Adobe Lightroom.  Under the “Effects” control panel, the first control is for “Post-Crop Vignetting”  You have several types of vignettes you can apply, with the default being “highlight priority.”  I usually stick with the default because it does a great job of introducing the vignette on darker regions of the image, while allowing the highlights to maintain their luminosity values.

The following photo is the starting place – all other edits were applied and it is time for the vignette.

Left Hand -3

My first step is to apply too much vignette.  In the following version, I have applied –38 highlight priority vignette.

Left Hand -3-2

In the above version, the boundary of the vignette is clear.  For me, this is a clear sign that I have pushed the vignette too far.  It’s ok, that was my intention.  The next step in the process is to gradually backoff the vignette until the well defined boundary disappears.  The next photograph is backed off to –13.

Left Hand -3-3

And finally at a level of –3.

Left Hand -3-4

Upon backing off the vignette to the point where the clearly defined boundary has disappeared (-3) in this case, I will increase the vignette slightly without returning to a clearly defined boundary.  For this photograph, I settled on the –13 setting.  In my opinion, this setting achieves a look that is natural.  In other words, you might expect the shadows and dark recesses behind the statute to create a lighting composition that accentuates the highlights and lets the light fall off around the edges.

Have fun, and go make some great photography.


Friday, October 22, 2010

Revisiting Photos–Time Can Help

Aqaba Beach

I have written several times about my workflow and the fact that my photographs usually get several reviews, often at times quite distant from each other.  So here is an example.

In January, I posted a somewhat snarky entry “I Don’t Shoot Sunsets (Except in Aqaba Jordan).”  The photos featured in this post are the same photos I posted in January…except that they have gone through another round of editing.

Sunset Pool at Intercontinental in Aqaba

In addition to catching a couple of spots from sensor dust, time away from the photos have given me a slightly different approach.  For the most part, the revisit resulted in some desaturation, lowering the contrast a tad, and a bit of color correction.  In summary, a more subtle approach than my first round of editing

Aqaba Sunset Pool

I provide this example along with an endorsement to not hurry through your post - processing.  In addition to suffering from tired eyes, your photos can suffer from the difficulty of removing yourself from the emotions tied to the time and place the photo was shot.  Time helps a great deal in overcoming these challenges.

Have fun, and be patient with your images.


Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Using Textures to Salvage Photography

Amman Texturized

The other day, I was processing some photos and came across the two photos featured in this post.  Both shots were taken from my hotel room in Amman Jordan.  Shooting through a window is not always a successful endeavor  - reflection, refraction, and dirt are among the things you have to deal with.  These photos were no exception.

Just as I was about to give up on using the photos, I decided to experiment with apply some textures that made the technical flaws merge into the final product.  On one hand, you could say I masked the flaws, but equally true would be the statement that they inspired me and I built upon them.  I don’t really care which perspective is taken – I am pleased with the results, particularly the first of the two.

Amman in Stone

Here is the process:

  1. Import your photo into Photoshop (or Photoshop Elements)
  2. Copy another image into a layer that is stacked above the original shot (in the two photos here, I used a water/beach image and a stone image respectively)
  3. Set the “texture” or top layer to “overlay”
  4. Adjust the opacity of the texture layer until you get the look you want
  5. Continue with color/contrast/crop/sharpening corrections (I did so after send the composite image back to Lightroom)

Although pleased with these results, I doubt that I will make this process routine in my approach.  On the other hand, when I run across compositions I find attractive yet flawed in some way I cannot reasonably remedy, I have no doubt I will apply this technique again.  One thing is for certain, I will now be collecting images to use as textures.

Have fun, and go make some great photography.


Friday, October 15, 2010

Bullet Proof Protection for your Photography

I have been concerned about protecting against the loss of my photography since I began pursuing photography seriously nearly seven years ago.  Over the years I have progressively added new measures to ensure the security of my work (see previous posts about Drobo).  The focus of this post is to describe my system at it’s current state of evolution, and acknowledge a couple of opportunities for improving this system.

The following diagram depicts the process for securing my photos.


If the diagram is not intuitively obvious, here is a breakdown:

  1. Take photo
  2. Remove memory card from camera and import to laptop
  3. Synchronization software (Allway Sync) makes a duplicate copy to a portable external hard drive
  4. Simultaneous to step 3, a copy is sent to an online storage site (iDriveSync)
  5. Once the file is synched to the iDriveSync site, it is replicated on my desktop computer (this is all done without intervention on my part)
  6. Synchronization software on my desktop then replicates the new photograph to the Drobo (multi drive external hard drive rack with internal redundancy)
  7. Finally, annual catalogs are burned to DVD and stored at my secret volcano lair

The key to any system of protecting your data is multiple copies in multiple locations.  Based on my system, upon importing a photo to the laptop (all preliminary sorting and first cut processing is made on the laptop), within minutes it will exist in 6 locations (CF card, laptop, external hard drive, iDriveSync, desktop computer, and Drobo), 7 if you account for the Drobo’s internal redundancy.  Best of all, this system requires very little effort.

The key components to this system are the external hard drives (small portable drive and the multi-drive Drobo), synchronization software, and online synchronization/storage.  There are a number of options with respect to external hard drives and synchronization software.  I have talked extensively about the Drobo in other posts and will therefore spare you.  Synchronization software (for synching between drives) is plentiful and inexpensive.  I use Allway Sync which is not pretty, but effective and cheap ($20).  So on to the heart of this system – online synchronization and storage.  Over the last few years, the business of online storage has flourished.  At every turn, you now run into advertisements for companies offering to backup your data to an online repository. 

Not all of these online systems are equal.  One key distinguishing factor for me was the ability to not only store the data online, but to offer live synchronization between computers.  Backup is great.  But taking files from one computer, storing them on-line, then copying them to a second computer without a conscious bit of effort on my part seemed like a no brainer; 3 copies versus 2, and less work for me with respect to file management.  SugarSync and Dropbox are also very nice solutions (definitely prettier, slicker and quicker than iDriveSync), but I chose iDriveSync based principally on price; $50/year for UNLIMITED storage.  My crystal ball says the competition is heating up and will result in prices being driven down and more companies offering the synchronization feature in addition to backup.  Although iDriveSync is the best deal I could find at the moment based on my objectives, others are sure to follow.

So how can I improve on this system? 

1.  Many people advocate having a bundle/basket/gaggle/flock/pod of CF cards and cycle through them in a set rotation so you have a “raw” copy of the photos for some period of time before deleting or reformatting the cards.  This practice ensures you have yet another copy of your photographs for some time until you are forced to “recycle” the card.  I have not yet included this in my workflow, but am planning on doing so (once I burn through a dozen other things on my photography wish list).

2.  Another layer of protection could be achieved by subscribing to a second online storage service that is used only as a backup service (such as Carbonite, Mozy, Norton, Microsoft Live, Barracuda, iBackup, etc.).  I consider this a low priority, yet valuable addition to a bullet proof system.

I would like to acknowledge that even with addition of the two areas of improvement I noted, this is a somewhat economical method to offer peace of mind.  This is not the gold standard…you could invest limitless cash in achieving the gold standard.  However, I am comfortable in this cash constrained approach.  Here is a summary:

  • CF cards – 10 x 4GB = $220 (note: I am not a fan of the huge capacity CF cards – up to 64GB – if I were to drop 64GB of data in a puddle, I would have to spend much more money in grief therapy.  4GB cards give me about 240 shots, and thanks to the new HUGE cards, are now very cheap).
  • Synchronization software – 2 licenses = $40
  • 500GB portable external drive = $75
  • Drobo with 4TB = $800
  • iDrive Sync annual fee (unlimited storage) - $50
  • Blank DVDs = $25 annual (depends on the number of photos you take)
  • Secret Volcano Lair = priceless

Total = $1210

Important note from the lawyers; this is not intended to be a prescription for 100% effective data protection.  Rather, it is intended to give you something to consider as you ponder the alternatives to protecting your important work.

Have fun, and go make some great photography.


Saturday, October 9, 2010

Playing with a Triptych

Piney Point Dock Triptych Combined copy

On Thursday I posted an entry (Inspiration for Diptychs) about the inspiration provided by Allen Russ (see City of Trees) with respect to diptychs and triptychs.  Not being one to waste time when I get inspired, I ran right out to find a composition I thought would benefit from the approach.

It did not take me long to settle on this dock in Piney Point Maryland as my subject.  As I conceived the shot, I thought the horizontal lines of the beach and the Virginia shoreline on the horizon would offer an interesting contrast to the vertical lines formed by the triptych.  I also made each vertical section a slightly different width.  I think the idea of varying the width was good, but more of a difference would have increased the visual interest.  For now, I’m happy with the result.

When you find some inspiration, don’t waste it.  Thanks Allen.

Have fun and go make some great photography.


Friday, October 8, 2010

Southern Maryland Oysterman

Southern Maryland Oysterman

I was very fortunate to catch this Southern Maryland oysterman in the act.  I would like to say I planned the shot, but it was nothing more than being at the right place at the right time.  I was exploring some of the back roads of Saint Mary’s County this morning, when upon rounding a turn in the road, I found this oysterman working close to shore.

Southern Maryland Oysterman-1

Planning is great, but a little luck is always welcome.

Have fun and go make some great photography.


Thursday, October 7, 2010

Inspiration for Diptychs

Hoya Rowing-1
I recently finished a big renovation on my home that includes the familiar tale of a project scheduled for three months and finished in nine.  But that is not the story for today.  Having completed the project, the architect brought in a architectural photographer to document the final product.  Assisting Anice (the architectural photographer) with the shoot was Allen David Russ.  I had a wonderful time distracting both Anice and Allen from their work by chit chatting about photography.
Memorial Bridge to Washington Monument
In conversation with Allen I learned that he is now showing a project at the Carroll Square Gallery (975 F Street, Washington DC) called City of Trees.  In addition to the information at the Carroll Square Gallery site, you can see a preview of Allen’s exhibit at his website.  Having checked out the web preview, I intend on visiting the Carroll Square Gallery, and recommend the same to you.  The exhibit features the trees of Washington DC.  Quite honestly, when Allen told me his project focused on the trees of DC, my unsaid response was along the sarcastic lines of “oh, that’s nice.”  I could not have been more misguided.  The photographs are beautiful and inspiring.
Hoya Rowing
Now that I have set the backdrop, I can get to the heart of this post. If you visit Allen’s website (or the gallery) you will find that many of the photographs are presented as diptychs or triptychs. This inspired me.  I have previously written about diptychs (Diptychs in Photography), but Allen’s approach is completely different than my discussion.  Allen’s diptychs are separate panels that flow through a continuous scene.  One of the benefits of this approach is the ability to present remarkable detail in each panel that would be increasingly lost by simply shooting further away or using a wider lens.  Due to their rich texture, the use of this technique is particularly appropriate for the trees featured in Allen’s work.
Canal in Geogetown
The diptychs and triptychs also add another dimension of visual interest by telling a two or three part story.  The eye naturally wants to explore each panel individually, move on to the next, and consider the composition as a whole.  This story telling aspect is at the heart of what inspired me.  My list of photographic things to do, now includes an exploration of diptychs and triptychs to expand the story of some of my favorite subjects.  Thanks for the inspiration Allen.  I would also like to thank Anice and Allen for their patience as I peered over their shoulders and took advantage of the opportunity to talk about photography.
Hoya Rowing-2
The photographs featured in this post were selected to compliment the theme of Allen’s work.  While not diptychs, they maintain the Washington DC theme with a specific focus on the water.
Have fun, and go make some great photography.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Thoughts on Refining HDR Photography

 DC Waterfront Sunrise-2

Over the past year, I have shared my thoughts, experiences and evolving refinement of the HDR process.  I think this is an important conversation to have and something to which more and more people are being exposed.  HDR is no longer confined to the professional or enthusiast photographer.  HDR is now a feature of some point and shoot cameras (processing of the HDR is handled in the camera) and is even now a standard part of the iPhone 4 camera software.

DC Waterfront Sunrise-5

I’m sure there is a broad range of opinions defining what makes a good HDR image.  At it’s roots, HDR is a great tool for adding dynamic range to your photography.  In other words, HDR helps get more information into the photograph than is otherwise possible with a single exposure.  This capability opens a number of creative doors.  Unfortunately, there are a number of pitfalls with HDR photography.  In my opinion, the goal should be to make an HDR photograph that does not look like an “HDR Photograph.”  By this, I mean avoiding the oversaturated, bubble-gum and cotton candy look common to some HDR photography.  Here are the common pitfalls of HDR photography and some examples:

  1. Oversaturation or emphasis of “bubble gum” like colors
  2. Unnatural lighting
  3. The photograph looks more like a cartoon or a surreal dream scene than reality
  4. Uneven colors
  5. The appearance of reflection on non-reflective surfaces
  6. Halos around edges
  7. Noise – particularly in darker parts of the image

The following two images are examples of these pitfalls.

NA-7A Corsair II PNAM

Funny Farm-4 

If you compare the last two photographs with the first two, you will get an idea of my target for HDR photography – more reality, and less cartoons.  You may have been wondering why I presented two very similar photographs of the Washington DC waterfront with the Washington Monument in the background.  The first shot was taken just as the sun was peaking over the horizon resulting in the pink colors in the sky.  This shot is intended to show that unique and attractive colors can come from HDR photography without being overstated.

The second photograph of the DC waterfront was taken about 45 minutes later after the sky had matured to a deep blue.  I posted this photograph as a point of comparison for the first.  In combination, these two photographs of the DC waterfront demonstrate that HDR photography can be a wonderful tool for enhancing your photograph without going over the edge to the surreal.

As a final word, I will mention that at times the pitfalls of HDR photography I listed can be an asset.  I concede that for artistic purposes there are times when these “pitfalls” are the intent and the final product is remarkably beautiful.  The key word is intent. 

Have fun and go make some great photography.